Md. school board delays key vote Teachers would have to take more courses

June 25, 1998|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's ambitious plan to fix reading instruction in Maryland may be in jeopardy because the State Board of Education delayed a vote on the proposal yesterday.

The decision on her plan to strengthen reading course requirements at education colleges, which would also affect the state's 47,000 working teachers, collapsed at the last minute as board members discovered they were unprepared to act.

In a sometimes testy and confusing exchange, some members said they needed more time to question logistics of the far-reaching plan, some had to leave the meeting early and others didn't want to risk taking a vote that might fail in the rush.

"I'm disappointed," said board President Rose LaPlaca, whose term ends Wednesday. "We need to get this started. I wanted to see it passed. It'sprobably my last day and I wanted to be a part of it."

Approval requires a super-majority, nine of 12 votes, and yesterday's pending vote appeared to be a close call.

Grasmick could lose crucial supporters by the July meeting if Gov. Parris N. Glendening names three new board members, as expected in a routine shuffle.

As critics from the state teachers union and education colleges line up against Grasmick and her supporters, both sides will be watching those appointments carefully with a key vote at stake so close to the fall election.

Glendening spokesman Ray C. Feldmann said he's not aware of lobbying for school board candidates as a result of the reading proposal, but said the governor "is not going to be affected by anyone lobbying for any particular individual over a single issue."

Grasmick, though frustrated by the setback, said she didn't think her plan was in trouble.

"It's just that if we do have new board members, it will require a substantial amount of orientation" to get them up to speed on the complex subject, she said.

"It's an extremely critical decision and it will make a powerful statement about reading as a fundamental skill."

The proposal, first presented to the board in December, aims to improve reading performance in a state where nearly two-thirds of third-graders don't meet the state standard in reading and 45 percent of fourth-graders couldn't do basic grade-level work on a national test in reading in 1994.

In Maryland and across the country, many reading experts blame reading failure largely on the poor training of teachers.

Last fall, Grasmick set out to attack the problem with one of the few prescriptive tools available to the education department in a state where local districts control curriculum. She called for certification requirements for teachers coming out of college and experienced teachers seeking renewal of their certificates.

Working with a task force, Grasmick proposed quadrupling the number of reading courses required for elementary school certification, from one course to four, and doubling the number for middle and high school certification, from one course to two.

Though Maryland is technically behind California in reading reform -- that state has reading legislation and a comprehensive plan already in place -- the proposed course requirements here are more numerous.

The International Reading Association, however, recently issued new reading standards that call for more course work for teachers than Maryland proposes.

Grasmick's proposal got vocal support from many school system leaders, the Johns Hopkins University, parents, and teachers who testified that they graduated from Maryland colleges without critical knowledge about the structure of the language, phonics and linguistics.

But many college deans have fought the proposal, saying that the state should not prescribe courses but should instead give a performance exam, let colleges design the curriculum and hold them accountable for their graduates.

Critics also charged that the new courses would impinge on academic freedom, add to the cost of becoming a teacher and open the floodgates for new requirements in other subjects.

Grasmick says she also favors a performance exam, like the one recently developed for California -- but it could take several years to develop, and she wants to get the course work in place to fix deficits in teacher training immediately.

It is unclear whether a one-month delay in approval would derail plans to begin phasing in the changes this fall.

Opponents of the proposal gained leverage last month when they were joined by a majority of the state "professional standards" board.

That body, made up largely of teachers and college officials, must approve all changes in teacher certification requirements.

Its rejection of the course work proposal and request for a delay in the board's vote forced the board to seek a super-majority of nine votes for passage.

The Maryland State Teachers Association, while in favor of boosting the reading expertise of teachers, also opposes the plan as written -- favoring instead "a collaborative solution" designed by "stakeholders" such as schools, colleges and parents, said Robert L. Moore Jr., educational reform specialist for the union.

Moore said it could take more than a decade to get experienced teachers retrained under Grasmick's proposal. Instead, he said, the state should tell each school in Maryland to examine its reading scores and decide whether it has a problem.

"I'd hold them absolutely accountable for diagnosing and fixing it," he said yesterday.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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